Handel: Giulio Cesare

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: DG Archiv
WORKS: Giulio Cesare
PERFORMER: Marijana Mijanovi?, Magdalena Kozená, Anne Sofie von Otter, Charlotte Hellekant, Bejun Mehta, Alan Ewing; Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
CATALOGUE NO: 474 210-2
‘A glorification of sexual passion uninhibited by the shadow of matrimony’ was Winton Dean’s graphic summary of Giulio Cesare. At the core of the work is the uniquely alluring figure of Cleopatra. And it is Magdalena Kozená’s portrayal that gives Marc Minkowski’s recording a clear edge over the Harmonia Mundi version under René Jacobs. Barbara Schlick, Jacobs’s Cleopatra, is nimble and bright-toned. But Kozená has a sensuousness and subtlety of colour that are not in Schlick’s armoury. In the earlier arias Kozená cunningly uses her brilliant coloratura technique to suggest Cleopatra’s flirtatiousness; with wonderfully supple phrasing she catches all the voluptuous enchantment of the ‘Parnassus’ scene – no wonder Caesar succumbs without a murmur; and she brings a real tragic intensity to ‘Per pietà’ and ‘Piangerò’, finding a new depth of tone and using the da capos to heighten the expression. It’s a pity, and a mystery, then, that Cleopatra should be deprived of her lilting aria ‘Tu la mia stella’.

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Marijana Mijanovi?, with her strong, ‘masculine’ timbre, makes a fine Caesar, throwing out her low-lying coloratura with aplomb and singing the magnificent soliloquy at Pompey’s tomb with solemn eloquence. Jennifer Larmore, for Jacobs, characterises a shade more vividly in, say, the ‘stalking’ aria, ‘Va tacito’ (despite Jacobs’s unrealistically slow tempo). But there is not much in it. Anne Sofie von Otter could hardly be bettered as the headstrong Sextus – as fiery and impetuous as Marianne Rørholm on the Jacobs set, but more subtle and vocally secure. Countertenor Bejun Mehta suggests Ptolemy’s venom without resorting to Derek Lee Ragin’s chesty gulps and gurglings; and, despite a prominent vibrato, Alan Ewing conveys Achilla’s lust and braggadocio more potently than the gentlemanly Furio Zanasi. Only the over-indulgent, sometimes plummy Cornelia of Charlotte Hellekant disappoints, especially by comparison with Bernarda Fink for Jacobs.

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If you’re still wavering, Minkowski’s conducting is even more vividly theatrical than Jacobs’s. Recitatives are marvellously alive; and accompaniments often have that much more character and point than on the rival set, with stronger, more imaginative shaping of the continuo lines. The live recorded sound is first-rate. The omission of ‘Tu la mia stella’ still rankles. But for its all-round success, and above all for Kozená’s glorious Cleopatra, Minkowski’s Giulio Cesare is now the one to have. Richard Wigmore